Navigant Research Blog

Data Centers Morphing Into Virtual Power Plants

Peter Asmus — February 12, 2013

Source: ABBWhat is a “virtual power plant?” The term means different things to different people in different parts of the world.  Pike Research has come up with its own definition: A system that relies upon software to remotely and automatically dispatch and optimize generation, demand-side, or storage resources (including PEVs and bi-directional inverters) in a single, secure web-connected platform.

At their core, VPPs tap existing grid networks to tailor electricity supply and demand services for a customer, utility, or grid operator.  Without any large-scale fundamental infrastructure upgrades, VPPs can stretch supplies from existing generators and utility demand reduction programs.

The latest VPP model to emerge is based not on geographic proximity – typically the top consideration – but rather on enterprise ownership of global operations.  Ironically enough, the farther away each facility linked in the VPP, the better!  Companies such as PowerAssure are investigating ways for companies that use large global data center operations, such as Apple and Google, to create enterprise VPPs that span the globe, whereby data centers shut down operations and shift load from the regions of the world in daylight to the nighttime half of the globe, where power is cheaper.  The technology to carry out this level of global energy arbitrage – known as “following the moon” – is nearly here (though some engineers may disagree). “Data centers can modulate their IT loads based on external events, such as the price of power, and in the process, save money and get paid for providing demand response (DR) services,” Peter Maltbaek, vice president of worldwide sales for PowerAssure, told me.

Changing Models and Mindsets

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently revised rules governing limits imposed upon use of diesel generators that should help increase the availability of DR throughout the United States.  The chief challenge for global enterprise VPPs comes on similar regulatory restraints as well as the accounting end of such transactions.  Of course, if large numbers of large energy users employed this strategy, it could wreak havoc with local grid stability instead of enhancing reliability.  How national and regional regulators would respond to such a business model, based largely on financial flows instead of engineering smarts, is unclear.

Another challenge is changing the mindset of data center owners.  “They need 100% availability and are leery of anyone fooling around with their power supply, especially since it is only typically 3% of total costs,” added Maltbaek.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL) released a study last year that looked at data centers and their potential for DR.  ABB, which has invested in PowerAssure and has its own Decathlon DCIM VPP offering for data centers, has already installed a 1 megawatt (MW) DC microgrid at a data center in Zurich, Switzerland providing DR through use of its emergency generators; this system is currently being expanded to 10 MW, will later go to 30 MW, and will then be aggregated with three other data centers in the region.

In Germany, meanwhile, Siemens claims that recent regulatory reforms will allow it to boost its supply-side VPP capacity to 3,000 MW by 2018.  Last year, the company announced that it would increase the capacity of its VPP from less than 10 MW to 200 MW by 2015.  The company says that Germany has enough spare capacity on its transmission lines to create VPPs that span the entire country.

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